Well, I’m fresh back from my week-long meditation retreat as a Buddhist “yogi.” The idea is that you go out into the forest with no cell phone and no internet. You take a vow of silence and don’t even write notes to anyone. You stay in a dorm-like closet, eat the food you’re given, have to do chores like vacuuming (chores! the very idea!), and meditate all day, every day. Sound like fun? That’s meditation, holmes.
First off, it’s beautiful out there. You’re out in the middle of the relative/moderate wilderness (at least compared to The City), and you get some of those benefits. Some mornings, I would see a few wild turkeys walking through the grounds, or a family of deer. Being able to get 15 feet from them or so without them running off. Not exactly the typical San Francisco experience. The night sky was incredible, just being able to see so many stars that are all but invisible to me where I live. (I wonder how the night sky is in Maui?) And then having to be up every morning at 6am to go sit and meditate means you get to see a lot of sunrises. And beautiful sunny hilltops from a valley covered in fog. Pretty spectacular.
I mentioned Hawaii, but the whole experience did somewhat remind me of Hawaii. I didn’t wear socks or shoes this whole time. I was barefoot or in slippers. This life of rolling out of bed, throwing on some slippers and starting your day just as you are is akin to that carefree lifestyle of vacationing on Maui that I loved so much. Wake up, throw on your shorts and walk barefoot to the beach. I should mention the food too. It’s all taken care of for you, all vegetarian, and mostly delicious. My favorite was on the first night… a salad dressing called “Hollyhock” which basically consisted of tamari, sunflower oil, apple cider vinegar, and nutritional yeast. Ever had it? I hadn’t, but it was delish!
There were some interesting rules, side effects, and observations I wanted to mention:
- Nike has perfected the sweatpant. I haven’t owned sweatpants in a very long time, but I had to get a few pair to prepare for this trip. They have it down in a way they didn’t when I was a kid. The drawstring is sewn in crisscrossed, so you don’t even have to do the first half of tying them. You just pull them as they are and they cinch up. Amazing! Plus they are reinforced at that stitch in the crotch that used to be the first place you’d get a hole every time. Color me impressed.
- Right Guard works. The teachers stressed again and again not to use any scented products out of respect for some of the other sensitive retreaters. They said “trust us, we’d much rather smell you.” I thought, that cannot possibly be true. But they learned, and so did I. One shower a day with their scent-free soap and no Right Guard, man I was pungent. I didn’t realize how hard Right Guard (and Irish Spring) work for me every day.
- I didn’t want to use the alternative scent-free hair products, so I went au natural the entire time. Turns out after five days of no shampoo or conditioner, I don’t need pomade. My hair will stay slicked down on its own, all day.
- When I say silent, I mean silent. People generally don’t make eye contact even. The whole time. It drove me nuts because it is in my nature to say please, thank you, excuse me, etc. But you just have to accept that no one is intentionally being rude, you just can’t talk. But this means that all the meals (which are taken in the dining hall) are face to face with people you can’t talk to or even look at. Luckily, this is something for which I have much practice already. A whole meal in silence and no eye contact? So if you’ve dated me and thought I was good at this before…
- I got to see what I might look like with facial hair. I decided not to shave until the final day, and when I did, I checked out my look with a goatee and various flavors of moustache. I am most partial to the Hulk Hogan style or maybe something bizarre like a mini Fu Manchu with a separation in the middle… and though part of me would like to know what I look like with facial hair before I die (is there an app for that?), the overwhelming hipster-ness of moustaches these days will keep me clean-shaven, at least for now. At least I have my chops.
Oh, and I had the Radiohead song “Reckoner” in my head all week.
As far as what did I actually learn spiritually? Well, I won’t go into that. I don’t think it’s done with me yet. But I will say that being in silence all that time with a bunch of people on the same general quest as you… you cultivate a certain gentle demeanor and a sort or universal good will. I mean, I always try to be “nice” in my day to day life, or at least I thought I did. Fair, polite, etc. I didn’t realize what a change this enviroment really was because we sort of eased into it. It’s a disposition that I’m going to carry with me for as long as I can, with the goal of making it part of my natural habit. The teachers warned us before leaving that we might be a bit sensitive as we transition back to the “outside world.” Like a lobster without a shell is the metaphor I think they used. They suggested we consider delaying before jumping right back into the thick of things, checking all our email, and so on. I thought to myself, hey, I wasn’t that moved. I’ll be fine.
Well, I wish I’d listened. When I stopped for lunch on the drive home, not a half hour out of the retreat, I’d powered up my phone and first thing checked CNN. The top five stories were about a school shooting in Connecticut. 26 victims, including 20 kids ages 6 and 7. I don’t know how I would have reacted to that news two weeks ago. But today, I admit — it was too much.
“If only [people] could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
— Thomas Merton